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Ensign Affair Shakes Up Nevada GOP

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Ensign Affair Shakes Up Nevada GOP

Politics

Ensign Affair Shakes Up Nevada GOP

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nevada Senator John Ensign apologized today to his Republican colleagues. He told them he is sorry for having an affair with a married staffer. Ensign made the comments during a closed-door lunch meeting. His fellow Republicans say they accepted his apology, but the scandal has tarnished Ensign's standing as a possible presidential contender in 2012.

And as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, it's taking a toll on the senator's party back home in Nevada.

INA JAFFE: At this point, another politician confessing to cheating on his wife is greeted by many Americans with a giggle and a sigh of boredom. That goes double in Nevada, where the majority of the population lives in Las Vegas -proudly known as Sin City. The Ensign affair barely rated a mention this morning on the "Heidi Harris Show" on conservative talk radio station KDWN.

(Soundbite of radio program, "Heidi Harris Show")

Ms. HEIDI HARRIS ("Heidi Harris Show"): I'm not calling for his resignation; I never have, but if he's going to do it, he needs to do it soon.

JAFFE: Whoa, there's a ringing endorsement from one of Ensign's fellow conservatives. If some Nevadans are taking Ensign's affair as just another routine disappointment, it may be because they've already had practice dealing with the scandals of their Republican governor, Jim Gibbons. Let's see. He's survived a couple of corruption investigations. He's involved in a messy divorce from his wife, Dawn; her divorce papers allege multiple infidelities. He's being sued by a cocktail waitress for allegedly sexually assaulting her in a parking lot. And, oh, you get the idea.

Mr. CHUCK MUTH (Former Chairman, Republican Party, Clark County): This is a guy who if shooting yourself in the foot was an Olympic event, he'd be a gold medalist.

JAFFE: That's Chuck Muth, a former head of the Republican Party in Clark County where Las Vegas is. He is now an independent conservative activist. But Muth says that Ensign's problems are a bit different than the governor's.

Mr. MUTH: The problem here is that it was with a staffer, somebody who was paid on your payroll. And that is raising a lot more questions, serious questions about the propriety of this. And that's one of the problems, why I think you're not seeing a lot of Republicans jumping to the senator's defense right now, is because they're worried about other shoes yet to drop.

JAFFE: Meanwhile, the Republican Party in Nevada is struggling to rebuild following significant losses last November. Even before Election Day, they lost the registration battle. There are now 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Nevada. An incumbent Republican congressman was unseated. And in this traditional swing state, Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 12 points.

But Bernie Zadrowski, the current head of the Clark County GOP, says Ensign could still prove to be the party's star and savior.

Mr. BERNIE ZADROWSKI (Chairman, Republican Party, Clark County): We'll know the impact of this when he comes here and he addresses the people of Nevada and says, this is what I'm going to do to fix it; to ask for forgiveness. And then to, in essence, go about politically doing the things he's got to do to make it right. If he's able to do that, he'll move forward and he'll be fine.

JAFFE: But it's not just the philandering of prominent officeholders that's beyond the party's control. There is Nevada's changing demographics, says David Damore, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And he says Republicans here haven't figured out how to deal with that.

Professor DAVID DAMORE (Political Science, University of Nevada): In particular, they've taken a really adamant anti-immigrant position. And when you have Hispanics, fastest-growing subgroup in the state, trending Democratic, that doesn't look good. So, the demographics just is another factor that adds to the problems associated with personality, lack of organization, lack of money that makes it a real daunting task.

JAFFE: But Bernie Zadrowski, leader of the Clark County GOP, believes that pundits are always too quick to write you off when you're down.

Mr. ZADROWSKI: It wasn't that long ago that everybody was predicting the end of the Democratic Party in Nevada. So, will the Republican Party bounce back from this? Yes.

JAFFE: But there could be a long way to go. A new organization, called the Republican Renewal Project, was set to have its kickoff fundraiser last Friday. But its founder and the barbecue's guest of honor was none other than John Ensign. The event has been indefinitely postponed.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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